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Mail Art: Stamp Collecting's Artistic Cousin

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There has always been casual and private mail art, the most simple and direct being the sort of correspondence sent from one kid to another, festooned with multiple stickers and perhaps even holding the classic anagram SWAK.

Creating Mail Art

From a stamp collecting point of view there is interest in mail art, as stamps used for postage are often smaller values -- the more the merrier being the rule. Also, for those who don’t limit themselves to official postage and allow cinderellas (any of a number of art labels and stickers, usually in the form of stamps) to sneak into their collections, the array used in the world of mail art can yield some fascinating philatelic collectibles.

There is even the possibility of making a piece of mail art with the simple elements of stamps and a postcard. Maximum cards, postcards where stamps echo the image on the card, can be considered mail art, and unusual and striking images create an artistic collectible.

One of the finest practitioners of mail art, including examples of altered mail, is Nick Bantock, whose fantasy correspondence between Griffin, a maker of postcards and the mysterious Sabine, a stamp artist, have their story told via their letters and postcards, attached to the books in Bantock's trilogy via fantasy envelopes that are festooned with stamps and postmarks straight from the author's imagination.

Mail art often has the feeling of a single small ephemera-laden page of a scrapbook. What you want to put on your mail art is totally up to you and the interesting pieces of paper and stamps that you can come up with.

Historical and Current Mail Art

Fluxus and dada were movements that produced much mail art, best described as abstract. And then there were individuals like Ray Johnson and Chuck Welch who produced real art on small cards and envelopes that ultimately went on to be hung in museums and sold in galleries.

The good news for stamp collectors who want to get involved is that it is a club open to everyone who has an imagination and wishes to express themselves through the mails. Recently the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum gave the movement/pastime/whatever its own stamp of approval when they hosted an event for families to come in and be part of the mail art world.

How hard is it to take part in mail art? Jennie Hinchcliff says it takes up a lot of time, but that she loves every minute of it.

"’Incoming mail’ to my PO box varies from week to week," she says. "I'd say about 15-20 pieces per week. Some of the mail is in response to the book Good Mail Day, co-authored with Carolee Gilligan-Wheeler; most of the mail is in response to my mail art activities around the Network. I usually send approximately 20-25 pieces of mail out each week -- keeping on top of all of my correspondence is a full time job in-and-of itself! But I love it."

The Future of Mail Art

Hinchcliff does not believe that the prevalence of electronic communications will have much of an effect on mail art.

“I feel that people will always have a connection to real, tangible objects -- 3D things in a world that is quickly becoming 2D. The relationship we have with letters/mail and the postal system is varied and colorful -- people hold on to letters, pass them down as family heirlooms and wonder at them in museums.”

Jennie produces Red Letter Day, a mail art zine. Each issue is themed, and features 2-3 articles that are of interest to mail artists. She hand binds each copy, and includes hand created art, including rubber stamping and silkscreen. The finishing touch is a photo CD of all artists featured in each issue.

Follow mail artist Jennie Hinchcliff on twitter at @redletterzine.

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